What I Would Say to the MBA Class of 2009

Congratulations, graduates!

The world is a very different place from when you entered your program two years ago. In September 2007, the capital markets were holding steady, companies were hiring, and prospects for continued growth seemed limitless. What a difference a year or two makes. Today the capital markets have lost 40 percent of their value, companies are shedding tens of thousands of employees, and a sense of doom hangs in the air.

Every generation finds its challenges. Yours may be greater than those in recent memory, but they are challenges that ambitious and savvy business graduates will find ways to overcome. Consider what you learned in the classroom not as a foundation, but rather as a spring board that will help you bounce higher and achieve more. So let me offer a few words of wisdom, things I learned from my mentors.

Celebrate your accomplishment. You just spent two years in graduate school and shelled out a small fortune for higher education. Now you have an MBA. Take pride in that accomplishment. Be proud of what you have learned. Hold tight to that warm feeling of accomplishment and keep it close to your soul. When times get tough, you are going to need to draw a little heat from the flame of this achievement.

Check your ego. You may think you are smarter than your boss. And you just might be, but don’t show it. Your MBA indicates you have book smarts; now it’s time to show that you have job smarts. That comes with putting your time in, listening and asking questions. Resist the temptation to play one-upmanship. You might be right, but instead of showing people up, show them how. Humbly.

Honor integrity. You need no schooling from me about what can happen when senior executives forgo sound business practices. You will discover newer, faster and more efficient ways to do things, save in one area: ethics. In ethics, there are no shortcuts. Remember that.

Break the mold. Keep your organization fiscally sound but creatively risky. That is, manage to the fundamentals but be open to what comes next. Find ways to invigorate your thinking by exposing yourself and your team to new ideas, new people and new cultures. You may not be a groundbreaker yourself, but you need to find the people with the shovels and pickaxes who are.

Respect your employees. Ever notice how some executives act as if the world owes them a living? They ignore administrative assistants, act rudely to security guards, and ask employees to run errands for them. Well, if you think you are going to get anywhere — or get anyone to follow your lead — by thinking and acting as if you are better than anyone else, forget it. Besides, it is the admins and security guards and front-line employees who know what’s really going on in companies; they spend their days meeting and greeting people. Pay attention to them.

Look for life in the “white spaces.” As diligent students of business, you have been exposed to hundreds of graphic models that illustrate the flow of information from one process to another. What you don’t see in those models are the people to people connections that make those business processses work. Those connections occur in the “white spaces,” the undefined areas between the interconnected arrows and boxes. How well you manage those connections with colleagues and bosses will determine how high you climb, either in someone else’s company or your own!

So as you enter the business world, go with a stout heart, strong stomach and a big appetite for adventure. Do not tread the same steps as we did; look to create your own tracks.

Good luck and good fortune!

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If you are giving a commencement address, you are welcome to read a post I wrote last year, “How to Write a Commencement Address.”

Read the whole story here, by John Baldoni @ Harvard Business Publishing